Recently, I had the pleasure of having my mind blown and subsequently reassembled by a Coursera course on Buddhism and Modern Psychology. It examined research conducted by modern psychologists into the tenets of Buddhist doctrine, including such ethereal concepts as Enlightenment, and Not-Self. The delightfully funny Professor Robert Wright did not once veer into voo-doo, keeping the discussion strictly naturalistic.

The whole course is fantastic, but the last week’s lecture really made my ears perk up. In it, Professor Wright posited what he thought could be four elements constituting Enlightenment: Not-Self (Exterior), Emptiness/Formlessness, Not-Self (Interior), and Impermanence.

Elements of Enlightenment: Not-Self, Emptiness, Impermanence

You’ll have to check out the course to even being grappling with these concepts, but it was the idea of Not-Self (Exterior) that got me especially interested. If you’ll recall, one of the main advantages of Megabrain that I saw was distributed empathy – if everyone knew and understood everyone’s stories of hurt and pain, how could anyone harm anyone else? Apparently, people who meditate seriously can begin to experience the feeling of complete interconnection with all – and, at the same time, of complete letting go. While not being able to actually know the stories of all others, is it enough simply to feel like you do?

Here’s an excerpt from the video transcript:

Professor Wright: Now, one interesting thing, really important thing, about this exterior version of the not-self experience is that it has moral implications, and here I want you to listen to what, what Gary Webber has to say.

Gary Webber: If everything is one thing, and we’re all in this together, not all of us that’s everything is one thing, then why should I do something if I wasn’t hired to do it, to this why would I do something bad to you?

Professor Wright: Okay now I want to emphasize that, that what Gary’s talking about is not feeling waves of empathy for his fellow human beings. In fact I wouldn’t call Gary especially warm and fuzzy as a person. […] But what Gary’s talking about is different. It’s just the perception that since there is no separation between you and the world out there, there’s just a feeling that any logic there might have been to harming anything in the world out there no longer applies. And I got very much the same sense from talking to Judson Brewer. As you may recall, he’s the one that conducted the default mode network experiment, and what I may not have told you is that he is himself a very serious meditator. And he’s had I think some pretty deep experiences. And here’s an exchange I had with him.

Professor Wright: If everyone, if everyone meditated, meditated intensively would there be any wars?

Judson Brewer: I guess that I would ask that as a question. You know, why would, why would someone want to harm themself?

Professor Wright: Mm-hm.

So, in that sense, it doesn’t, I don’t think that there would be, because it’s kind of like, well, you know, why would you cut off your right hand? It’s kind of useful.

Professor Wright: Mm-hm.

Judson Brewer: So, I think if people really saw the non-separation, how could they?

Professor Wright: Okay, so that’s what I would call the exterior part of the not-self experience, it is a kind of a, a logical extension in a way, of the interior part. But it does really accentuate an important moral implication of the not-self experience. It might not be so clear otherwise. And that is just that it, it gives people the feeling that not harming things – at least it can give people this feeling, I can’t vouch for everybody – can give people the feeling that, that not harming things is just the logical thing to do. So this is, you know, you might almost say that it’s an example of, you know, selflessness in a kind of literal sense of not, not self, just not feeling the self, not experiencing the self, leads to a kind of selflessness in a more moral sense.

Source: Buddhism and Modern Psychology by Robert Right, Princeton University via Coursera

What Do You Think?

Do you meditate? If you do, have you ever approached this feeling of exterior not-self? While I appreciate it might be rather difficult to describe in words, I’d love it if you tried – flip me an email to, or leave a comment below.

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